Any outrage Torontonians may be feeling toward the government of Dalton McGuinty over its austerity budget was not evident at a Tuesday morning town hall meeting hosted by midtown Liberal MPPs.
Residents and community group representatives filled a room in Christ Church Deer Park on March 28 and asked for clarification on aspects of the previous night’s budget including social assistance and childcare.
But judging by frequent applause, they seemed by and large accepting of the financial realities outlined by MPPs Kathleen Wynne, Mike Colle and Eric Hoskins after their minority government launched a budget they say is designed to get Ontario in the black by 2017.
Faced with a $15-billion deficit and a challenged worldwide economy, Ontario Liberals wrestled with tough decisions to arrive at a realistic 2012 budget, said Wynne, MPP for Don Valley West.
“There’s nothing ideological about this,” she said. “It’s a very tough time and a lot of the circumstances are beyond our control.”
The MPPs highlighted $17.7 billion in savings and cost-containment measures, including a two-year wage freeze for public sector employees, a corporate tax freeze, the cancelling or delaying of $900 million in capital infrastructure projects, and a cap on the Ontario Clean Energy Benefit incentive rate.
Though one community worker expressed disappointment that the social assistance rate remained unchanged in the budget, she thanked the MPPs for providing a Power Point presentation detailing the budget.
“I’m really pleased to hear there are no cuts in the affordable housing plans that are going ahead,” she said.
Wynne addressed the worker’s concern over social assistance, saying though the rate has been set, the province is awaiting a report from the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario.
The Liberals also propose closing underperforming schools, amalgamating some school boards and putting a cap on the number of secondary school credits students can obtain.
But Colle (Eglinton-Lawrence) pointed out several infrastructure projects for Toronto will be maintained, including the $8.4 billion for transit infrastructure in Toronto, dispelling rumours the province was looking to cut the funding. The majority of the cash will go toward building the Eglinton Crosstown, but council recently voted to use some of that money to build light rail on Finch and Sheppard and replace the Scarborough RT.
Colle made light of the recent LRT-versus-subway debate at city hall.
“I think it’s gondolas they wanna make, flood Eglinton with trenches,” Colle said to laughter.
However, Wynne indicated there’s nothing left for capital public transit projects in Toronto at this point.
“We’ve got the $8.4 billion on the table, it’s going to be spent in Toronto, but going forward, folks, we’re going to have to have a discussion about how to raise revenue to continue to build transit,” she said, adding provincial transit planning agency Metrolinx is expected to present an investment strategy next year.
Other tough calls had to be made, and Toronto facilities and services were not exempted.
To reduce borrowing by $570 million, the budget cancels four previously announced hospital projects including the hemodialysis unit at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.
In an interview, Wynne said the province has previously put millions into other hospital programs and facilities.
“There’s just been such a lot of investment and I think this is something we can’t go forward with at this point and my hope is that in the future we will be able to,” she said.
After the meeting, Hoskins (St. Paul’s) told the Town Crier his government is bracing for push back from public sector employees on the call for a two-year wage freeze. The government has said if such an agreement cannot be reached through collective bargaining, it intends to use legislation to impose a freeze.
Hoskins said he’s hoping it won’t come to that.
“Our government has an amazing track record in terms of our relationship with public sector employees and their representatives and unions,” he said.
Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak said his team will not support the budget, leaving the fate of a confidence vote in the hands of the New Democrats. At budget’s launch, party leader Andrea Horwath said she is undecided, as party support will depend on public feedback.